Shami Sivasubramanian writes how an off-handed comment can trigger a flood of feelings.
“Shami, I swear, you’re the whitest brown person I’ve ever met.”
Whenever I hear this – which is all the time – there’s a part of me that feels indignant.
I love my Indian heritage. I speak Tamil fluently, I’m a concert-grade Indian classical vocalist, I used to teach Hindu Sunday school, and I can talk at length about the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
But then, there’s a bigger part of me that feels…
Just for a moment, I bask in the glory of seeming white.
Just for a moment, I want to belong to the elite class of human untainted by a social pressure to conform to a narrow idea of what it means to be ethnic.
Then I feel like a douche.
I’m brown. And proud of it. Generations of brown Australians have fought so hard for social acceptance and here I am in 2018 taking ‘white’ as a compliment. Ugh.
But you can choose to interpret it another way.
If you give the benefit of the doubt, ‘you’re the whitest brown person I’ve ever met’ is someone’s way of saying ‘The colour of your skin doesn’t mean you’re the same as the next brown person. I see you for you.’
And this makes me feel free to be who I want to be.
Racism is a lot more subtle than we think. It’s not as simple as people snubbing you for looking different or having different religious beliefs. It’s people thinking they’ve got you all figured out because they can’t pronounce your name and your skin is a bit darker than theirs.
When you’re not white, most people make assumptions about who you are and what you’re capable of.
The kicker is when you tell them they actually don’t have you figured out, they look at you like you’re the problem.
So, being told I seem white doesn’t just make me feel like I fit in – I feel like I’ve hacked the system.
It’s a whole other intangible level of belonging.
It’s a bit like Chris Lander’s list of Stuff White People Like – minimalism, expensive camping gear, HBO – where the joke is that “whiteness” is less about the colour of a person’s skin, and more about their taste.
It goes without saying that I believe Australia is made stronger by multiculturalism. And it goes without saying that I don’t think the colour of someone’s skin should exclude them from anything, let alone from feeling Australian.
But we know that’s not how things really work – at least, not yet.
On the one hand, not factoring the colour of my skin into my identity is, dare I say, the whitest thing I do. But on the other, when someone says ‘I’m the whitest brown person they’ve ever met’, in some twisted way they understand that my connection to my heritage transcends my skin colour. And I like to think that's progress.